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Monday, December 9, 2013

Joseph and His Bros

Problematic Parents, Battling Siblings: How Did We Jews Ever Get to be Who We Are
 (Rabbi Ron Klotz)

“And they took him [Joseph] and cast him into the pit, and the pit was empty; there was no water in it.” (Genesis 37:24) 

I am an only child who always wanted to have a brother. But since Simchat Torah we’ve been reading about our ancestors’ escapades. Now I’m not so sure. It’s hard to imagine how we became a People given their dastardly deeds. It all started with Eve, the rebellious teenager eating the forbidden fruit. Then her son Cain kills Abel, Abraham expels his first-born, Ishmael, and Ishmael’s mom Hagar, just before taking Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice. Thank goodness he saw the light and that poor ram got caught by its horns in the thicket. 

Isaac doesn’t do much himself, but look at what happens with his sons and grandchildren. Jacob steals and lies his way into the birthright and blessing, and his sons throw their brother into a pit. 

 Being an only child might be better than being the eleventh son, as Joseph is. Jacob loves Joseph the most because he is the son of his old age (and because he’s the son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel). Joseph is a spoiled and conceited young man; spoiled by colorful gifts from his father and conceited enough to let his brothers know that one day, they and their father will bow before him, as described in Joseph’s dreams. We know that all of this comes to be, years later, in Egypt. But can you imagine how the family must have felt then? Throwing a brother like Joseph into a pit might not have been such a bad idea, especially when trying to maintain Shalom Bayit (peace in the home). 

Recently, my Hebrew class discussed the Joseph-pit experience. I read the students the passage, “and they took him, and cast him into the pit, and the pit was empty; there was no water in it.” “The pit was empty”—so why tell us that there was no water in it? And was this lack of water good or bad? The biblical commentator Rashi makes sure we appreciate the incident’s ultimate horror by explaining “there was no water in it” indicates what was in the pit, serpents and scorpions.  So the pit was not really empty, rather it was filled with horrors.   

How can we ask God to forgive us based on the merits of our ancestors (Zechut Avot) given all their wrongdoings, as described in Genesis? Perhaps we should think in terms of outcome.  Knowing how it all ends may help.  If it weren’t for Sarah helping Abraham choose Isaac over Ishmael, Isaac passing along the birthright and blessing to Jacob, and Jacob’s sons selling Joseph into slavery, there would have been no one to save the Jewish people from the seven-year famine that brought Jacob’s family to Egypt. We Jews would not have gone from slavery to People-hood, Moses would not have been born, and we wouldn’t be looking for the Afikomen next spring.
We Jews are here for a reason; a reason important enough to have ensured that we continue.  Despite those pesky acts of our ancestors, we shouldn’t lose sight of their great faith in and personal relationships with God. Their deeds and misdeeds make for a great story, and prepare us for what comes next -- commandments. Perhaps Genesis was written this way to get our attention, so that we would be ready to become a People and receive the ethical and moral commandments in Exodus and elsewhere in the Torah. Living ethical and moral lives, and passing on those essential and fundamental human values, constitute the light; we Jews are the illuminators. 

Still, Cain, Jacob, and Joseph’s ten brothers aren’t very good role models for siblings. But they are noteworthy.  We all know that brothers and sisters can love each other and be best friends, but that won't make the 11:00 PM news. 

But, you know what? I still wish I had a brother.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Walk in the Park

A walk in the park the other day reminded me of a similar walk I took a few years ago.  Here's what I wrote about it.

I took a little walk today.  "So?" you might say.  Believe me, this was a
memorable walk.  When I get home in the afternoon, I sometimes  workout
on our treadmill.  But today I wasn't feeling so great; kind of tired, knocked out, maybe getting a cold.  So I decided to skip the routine and just go for a stroll around the neighborhood.

It's October and the trees are decked out in all of their splendor; the best
show nature has to offer.  And if my old neighborhood has anything, it's big,
old trees that can dazzle the eye during these couple of weeks of color.  So I
took a little walk.

So I'm strolling down the sidewalk trying to take in the orange and reds, the
dull browns, and fading greens.  I'm tired but feel that this is important
since I know that in a week or two all will be bare.  It's as if I need to
capture this technicolor spectacle so I can rewind to it when the cold winds
whip through the empty branches, when I need a reminder of the softness of
nature.  In other words, I'm trying to take in as much as I can with my eyes.
It was just that kind of moment when my stroll transported me to other times
and other places.  I had been so concentrated on my seeing it all, that I
wasn't ready to be kidnapped by the smells of autumn.

I walked under a canopy of yellow when the first smell hit me.  It was sort of
dusty and pine-driven.  In two or three short steps I was taken away, all the
way to Jerusalem.  I was walking down Jabotinsky, coming home from HUC to our
apartment on Rachov Harlap, sitting on the Mirpeset with Juca, carrying flowers
for Shabbat.  It must have been that pine smell that reached out to me with a
25 year-old arm  and pulled me back all that way.  I followed my nose into a
personal twilight zone, transported to a time when all was beginning.  I hardly
even noticed the smells of Jerusalem back then, and certainly didn't realize at
that time that someday I would be remembering them with a warmth and a smile
and a, "Yeah, I remember that time - it was good."  When I got home I told Juca
that I had smelled it and that it had made me remember.  She understood exactly
and even described that very smell to me.  She knew.  That was my first smell
of the evening.

A little farther along my stroll a second olfactory sensation materialized.
This second sniff-trip, wasn't nearly as esoteric as the first.  This was more
dry and dusty than piney.  It took me farther in years but not in miles.  I
must be strange, but in an instant I was back in high school struggling on a
dusty football field.  For me, football was more than sounds and movements.
For four years the taste and smell of it filled me.  I lived for it and used it
to prove myself to myself.  Today my nose reminded me of that young time.  It
was a time of accomplishment and camaraderie, of controlled trials and tests of
the spirit and body.  In a flash I was back there, my father watching from the
sidelines, my mom, worried in the stands.  Playing football was one of the
hardest things I've ever done.  I was proud to have done it pretty well and am
often reminded of the challenge of those days.  Again, I had no idea that the
smell of the season would stay with me all of these years to carry me back
there today.

If I had to put more than just a nostalgic spin on today's trips, I would have
to say that these diverse memories symbolize my own makeup.  To combine in
one's nostalgia both locker rooms and the streets of Jerusalem, blends an
American childhood with an expanding Jewish identity.  I can hear the Twilight
Zone theme song ringing softly in my ears.  

It's funny, I just started out to take a little walk around the neighborhood, but ended up journeying to the far corners of my life.  When I returned home, I unpacked a few smiles I'd picked up along the way.

I hope you are enjoying the colors in your neck of the woods,


Monday, October 14, 2013

Saying Goodbye to an Old Friend

I’m sorry to say that the world will be saying goodbye to Mike Babka tomorrow.  I’m also sorry that I can’t be there to pay my last respects to Mike, for respecting Mike, I surely did.  I met Mike on the first day of football practice our freshman year at Morton West High School in 1960.  He was our starting fullback and I blocked for him on the offensive line.  It would be that way for the next four years.  Mike was an imposing figure on the field who liked to run over defenders rather than around them.  He liked to kid me our last two years on varsity as I was a lineman but a few pounds lighter than our quarterback.  He’d say, “How much you weigh today, Ronnie?”  He would laugh when I told him I was still in the 170’s and the QB was still in the 180’s.

Mike was more than a teammate.  He was a good friend and kind of a bigger-than- life party animal who loved to smile, laugh and kid his buddies.  We did party a bit together in those days as well as on camping trips to Wisconsin and at the University of Illinois.  A bunch of us football buddies formed a group called “The Campers’ Alliance” while we were in high school.  We’d go camping up in Wisconsin for a week at the end of the summers, before the grind of football practice began, and a few times in the Spring while there was still snow on the ground. 

 In 1963 our beloved Chicago Bears found themselves in the NFL championship game (pre-Super Bowls) against the dreaded New York Giants.  My parents took a trip to Dallas for a wedding and I invited the “Alliance” boys over to my apartment to watch the game.  We cooked ourselves a turkey dinner feast, toasted our girlfriends and watched the Bears become NFL champs.  The next year most of us were away in college or other places and decided to gather again (almost all of our gatherings were at the Babka residence) cook the turkey and toast our high school days etc.  That Turkey-cook reunion kept on keeping on every year since.  Although I missed many of the yearly, January Turkey cooks after I left the Chicago area, last January I was able to once again join the group.  It seems to me that Mike was often out of the country at Turkey-cook time too.  I remember once talking to him on the phone with the other guys while the turkey was in the oven.  I think he was in Korea or Japan.  Well, last January both Mike and I made the cook.  He gave me a big Babka grin and handshake and said, “How you doin’, Ronnie?”  Good to be called “Ronnie” as you approach your 68th birthday.  That night we talked a lot about Mike’s travels.  He especially wanted to tell me of his trips to Israel.

I benefited greatly by being the only Jewish kid in our group (or should I say groups).  There was never a negative word or derogatory comment from anyone on the team, in the Campers’ Alliance, or the Turkey-cook group.  As a matter of fact I remember twice when Mike came to my defense.  One occurrence happened in the parking lot behind the Olympic Theater in Cicero and the other on the Lake Michigan beach in Wisconsin.  Specifics escape me, but as I recall someone, not one of our buddies, said something anti-Semitic, or maybe told an offensive joke.  Before I could react, Mike was in their face.  Mike as not shy and retiring, neither was he small.  He was a big barrel of a fullback and when he got in your face, well, he was in your face.  Mike made it very clear that whatever statement was made was out of line and needed to be taken back. He never mentioned that there was a Jewish kid in the group, just that we wouldn't tolerate that prejudice. 

Even though Mike and I didn't see much of each other over the years, when we were together, like last winter at the Turkey-cook, it was clear to me that our friendship was still strong.  We’d always reminisce about the times we all gathered in the basement of his parents’ house in Berwyn, the ball games, the camping trips, all of those good times.

I know how difficult these last couple of years have been for Mike and his family.  I send them my deep condolences.  Please know that Mike was loved by his friends and will be missed.  We are all better people for having known him.  He’s in my thoughts and my prayers. 

Rabbi Ron (Ronnie) Klotz

The top picture shows Mike in action. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Dude Abides, Man

                                                                                                September, 2013

Dear Family and Friends:

I’m a lucky guy, in any number of ways.  One of those is that my kids give me gifts for no reason (and those are the best).  Two weeks ago Jer gave me a book that I’ll tell you about in a minute.  At about the same time Julian “Cannonball” Adderley CD’s started mysteriously arriving here.  Cannonball Adderley is a favorite sax player of mine.  My son Mike was the culprit (it didn't take long for me to figure that out). 

I’m also lucky to have close friends who are wonderful, dear, and incredibly talented.  Late last Thursday night, long after an outstanding Simchat Torah experience with Dan Nichols, followed by a magical 90 minutes where forty of so IU Hillel students crammed into a small program room, jammed, sang, and listened to Danny do, do that voodoo that he does so well (any of you remember Sinatra’s “Old Black Magic?”), we found ourselves sitting out on the porch, schmoozing (not unusual for us).  We talked about any number of things, recognizing that our lives have been G.U.C.I.-intertwined forever.  To the world it’s “Dan” Nichols, but to the Goldman Union Camp world he is, and I believe will always be, “Danny.” 
So there we sat out in the dark, trading some memories, discussing what we each thought might be the essential elements of song leading and much of the music we have shared over the years.  Danny reminded me that, long ago, I had given him a beloved Dukes of Dixieland CD and I commented that, as strange as it may sound, there is one note in that performance that always brings me to the brink of tears.  Silly, eh?  A Dixieland band, a great Dixieland band, led by the Assunto brothers, Frank on coronet and Fred on trombone that can elicit such a strong response on my part.  But it’s true. The album is “The Best of the Dukes of Dixieland,” and the number is “The Original Dixieland One-step.”  Late in that number Fred Assunto’s trombone soars above the band and always hits me right between the eyes.  A while ago I told you of a similar response I always have to a particular note on an Ella Fitzgerald CD.  It is a note that I anticipate and wait for…and hope for.  When it comes it is rapture. 

Last night at another Simchat Torah celebration, this time at the installation of a newly hired rabbi and cantor at a fledgling synagogue in Indianapolis, I spoke about the book I am reading, the one from Jeremy.  It’s about one of my favorite movies, “The Big Lebowski.”  In the book the star of that movie, Jeff Bridges, has conversations with a Jewish-Zen master friend about the philosophies presented in the movie.  Jeff talks about the central character, “The Dude,” and remarks that no matter what trials or tribulations confront the Dude, “The Dude abides.”  His Zen master friend  responds by telling him that Chassidic rabbis believed that there are always 36 righteous souls in the world, and because of them God allows the world, with all of its imperfections and injustices and evil, to abide, to continue.  Perhaps, he suggests, the Dude is one of the 36.  I used this idea to suggest that we treat each other as if he or she might be one of the 36, understanding that the world abides because of that person’s righteousness.
Then, this morning I put the Dukes of D. on and listened once again to that soaring trombone.  The thought came to me that perhaps my world abides because of that note and Ella’s, at least in the instance of hearing them.  You may have such a note or two as well.  Maybe it is in a Springsteen song, or Van Halen, or Mozart, or maybe in the “Amen” at the very end of the Shehechianu at the end of a Shabbat song session in a steamy, summer Chadar Ochel at camp.  Mine’s in the midst of a Dixieland number and a jazz ballad; strange as that may seem.
To celebrate the joy of our Jewish cycle, to dance with the Torah, to install two new clergy as leaders in a newly born synagogue, and to sit late at night on the porch talking to a dear friend about nothing and everything, music; well, it just doesn't get much better that that.  I’m kind of understanding how the Dude abides, how the world abides and how lucky I am to be a part of it all.  

And gifts from my sons…that goes at the top of the list.


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Happy Birthday Linda Brenner

Dear Family and Friends:

Our dear friend Linda Ross Brenner just had a significant birthday.  Here's the tribute I videoed for her.  It's a bit crudely filmed, but I'm no Max Klaben in that department.  

Happy birthday Linda.



Friday, August 23, 2013

A Family in Our Community Needs Your Help

Ethan Kadish is a 13-year-old boy in great need of the Reform Jewish community’s help.
On June 29, 2013, the afternoon peace of Shabbat at URJ Goldman Union Camp Institute(GUCI) in Zionsville, IN, was shattered by a lightning strike that left three campers unresponsive on the athletic field. Thanks to the skill, courage, and quick thinking of the GUCI staff, all three campers made it to the hospital and survived this unimaginable tragedy.
This heartrending incident tested the GUCI family, the URJ camp community, and the entire Reform Movement, but none more than the families of the injured campers. Their strength has been nothing short of inspirational. Two of those families’ children, thankfully, recovered and returned home; one even returned to camp. The third camper, Ethan Kadish, remains hospitalized in Cincinnati, OH.
To date, Ethan’s recovery has included a series of successes that began with his survival and includes milestones like opening his eyes, breathing independently, and responding to stimuli. Ethan is in the care of a fantastic medical team and undergoes several hours of intense physical therapy every day. His family looks forward to the day he will return home, but they recognize, too, that even once he’s home, his challenges will continue. Ethan will require regular therapy and constant medical care, which, once he leaves the hospital, likely will not be covered by insurance. Ethan and his family face a long, hard, and, yes, expensive road ahead.
The Kadish family’s remarkable strength comes largely from their faith – faith in the healing power of God, faith in the skill and wisdom of Ethan’s physicians, and faith in the support of the URJ and GUCI communities. We are pledged to maintain that support, ensuring that throughout the challenges ahead, their faith in our communities will not waver.
This week – the week before Ethan was to have celebrated his bar mitzvah – a fundraising campaign in his honor has been launched with HelpHOPELive, a nonprofit organization that assists the transplant community and those who have sustained catastrophic injury. The funds will help Ethan’s family meet immense financial challenges associated with uninsured therapies, home modifications, and other injury-related expenses. All contributions made in Ethan’s honor will be administered by HelpHOPELive, specifically and solely for his injury-related expenses.
Our tradition teaches that Kol Yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh (all Jews are responsible one for the other). Indeed, together with HelpHOPELive, the Reform Jewish family can honor Ethan and his family, sending a strong message that we stand together with all of them during this time of need.
To make a charitable contribution by credit card, please call 800.642.8399 or visit Ethan’s page at helphopelive.org.
To make a donation by check, make checks payable to: HelpHOPELive and include this notation in the memo section: In honor of Ethan Kadish. Mail to:
2 Radnor Corporate Center
100 Matsonford Road, Suite 100
Radnor, PA 19087
Contributions are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by the law. This campaign is being administered by HelpHOPELive – a 501(c)(3) nonprofit providing fundraising assistance to transplant and catastrophic injury patients – which will hold all funds raised in honor of Ethan in its Great Lakes Catastrophic Injury Fund.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

John, Woodie and Henry

Dear Family and Friends:

A while ago I wrote a piece about John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath."  I've recently been seeing retros about Henry Fonda which certainly bring to mind that great movie.  Here is a recap of that post.



Sometimes being a late-night person pays off, at least in the “Watching Old Movies On TV,” department.  The other night I revisited the saga of Tom Joad and his family as they made their trek westward out of the 1930’s Oklahoma dust bowl to the California line.  Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” never hit home with me like it did that night.  Granted, It was late and I was tired, but I sat mesmerized watching Henry Fonda come home from prison only to find that his family had lost the farm to the dust and the bank.  It broke my heart to see those old farmers kneel down and scoop up handfuls of dirt and remember that their fathers and mothers were born and died on that land.  Tom Joad’s grandfather refuses to leave, holding on to a handful of dirt saying, “this dirt is mine…. It ain’t worth nothin’…but it’s mine.”

This is a tragic story of folks being forced off of their family’s land, and making their way to a new place, living on a hope and a prayer.  It’s the story that prompted so many of Woodie Guthrie’s songs.  He was an “Oakie,” and “Dust Bowl Refugee (one of his song titles),” when he wrote, “Do Re Mi,” and told us that “California is the Garden of Eden, a paradise to live in and see.  But, believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot, if you ain't got that Do Re Mi.”  And out of his dust bowl came, “Pastures of Plenty,” and “I’m Goin’ Down That Road Feeling Bad (and I ain’t gonna to be treated this-a way).” In, “I Ain’t Got No Home,” Guthrie wrote the saddest of verses saying, “My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road. It’s a hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod.  The landlords threw us out and drove us from our door.  Now we ain't got no home in this world any more.”  Along with the better known, “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You,” Guthrie put Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” to music with “The Ballad of Tom Joad.”  These are sad songs of poverty and suffering, but all with a glimmer of hope and great determination. 

One of our Torah portions came to mind as I sat in my family room glued to director John Ford’s incredibly powerful visual masterpiece.   How much like the Joads must Abraham have felt when he heard the words “Lech Lecha…” as he was ordered to leave the land of his birth?   How heroic to grit you teeth and pack your belongings and hit the road. I also couldn't help but think of the tragedy happening for all those modern-day, dusty refugees leaving their homes, like those in Afghanistan who made their trek to the Pakistani line. This is not a comment about our war in Afghanistan (that's a thought for a future blog post), but it certainly is heartbreaking to see anyone who, “Ain’t got no home in this world anymore.”

I encourage you to go out and rent “The Grapes of Wrath.”  See if it doesn’t help you understand the plight of the refugee and the heroism of the pioneer.  God knows our ancestors filled both of those roles throughout our history; refugees from Egypt, Spain, Russia, Poland, Yemen, Ethiopia, etc.  And heroic pioneers called Chalutzim, who left the lands of their birth with nothing but a dream, and came to Eretz Yisrael to build that dream in the form of kibbutzim.    They too scooped up handfuls of earth and said, “This land is mine!”  They understood the power of a personal relationship with land, the strength and satisfaction that comes from working the land, and because of that, the magnitude of the tragedy of being uprooted from your land. John Steinbeck and Woodie Guthrie understood and taught all of these lessons well. They just didn’t know how Jewish their message was.      


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Secret Times and the American Pastime

                                                                                                July, 2013

Dear Family and Friends:

A couple of nights ago I watched the Major League baseball All-Star Game.  What’s so interesting about watching a ball game anyway?  Well for 36 summers I worked at Goldman Union Camp Institute and for 10 or so summers before that I worked at Olin- Sang-Ruby Union Institute.  Both are summer camps and when you work in a summer camp, days blend into one another, the time between one Shabbat and the next is just an instant, and who (at camp) even knows when the All-Star game is even happening?
This game brings together the best players in the American and National leagues.  They are the best baseball players in the world, (I dare say) and most American baseball fans are excited about it.  When I was a kid, I was too.  That was before all of those summers at camp with no TV or time to even think about the sport I loved so as a boy.

So, here I am, retired, at home in the summer and able to once again tune into the game.  You know, I really am not very interested in All-Star games.  Nowadays the game is important because the winning league gets home field advantage for the game of games, The World Series.  I’m a National League person.  But I know that even if the NL pulls off a victory, the World Series will not be played in a “Field”  (as in Wrigley) but most likely in a “Stadium” (as in Busch), or a “Park.”  This troubles me.   Nevertheless I watch, and the American League wins anyway.

So I’m up in my lair, watching the game and I flashback to a time long ago when All-Star games were so important to me.  The year is 1958.  Believe it or not, in those days I’m a Chicago White Sox fan (that would last until the mid 60’s…it probably was a rebellion.  My dad was avid Cubs fan).  So, it’s 1958 and some unbelievable players are in the game.  To start with the Sox’s second baseman, Nellie Fox; and shortstop Louis Aparicio (later to become Nellie’s son-in-law, but I digress) one of the greatest double –play combinations in all of baseball history (or at least the history of baseball in my lifetime).  Joining these heroes of mine was another all-time great, Mickey Mantle.  Mantle played center field for the much hated (because they were such a powerful and winning team) New York Yankees.  I hated the Yankees…but I had a picture of Mickey Mantle in my bedroom.  Some of the best ever played for the National League, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Warren Spahn to name a few.

So I’m watching the game here in 2013 flashing back to ’58 but not thinking about these historic names, or even thinking of the game itself at all.  Rather, I’m thinking of the setting in which I heard the game.  That’s right, heard the game on the radio, as did millions in those days.  But when one listened to such games announced by outstanding sports announcers who painted pictures with their words, you really did see the game, in your head, that is.    In 1958 I was twelve years old.  It was my first summer as a camper at Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.  I’d been a camper for four years already at other camps because our Reform Movement camps in those days did not take campers younger than twelve.  Funny, I didn't know that it would be the first of fifty-two summers I would be spending in our Reform Jewish summer camp programs.
I remember the night of that All-Star game.  We must have been listening to a rebroadcast of the game as baseball was pretty much an afternoon sport back then.  I was a camper in one of the small white cabins on the Big House lawn near the lake (we didn't know enough Hebrew then to call it the Bayit, as it is called today).  I can see it in my mind.  It’s late at night, dark in the cabin while ten or twelve of us twelve-year olds huddle around a bottom bunk at the back of the cabin, ears “glued” to a small transistor radio.  We had to listen quietly so we wouldn't attract the attention of the counselors on late night “OD.” I remember nothing of the game.  I remember everything of the excitement of sneaking around, like thieves in the night, outrageously listening to baseball when we were supposed to be fast asleep in our bunks.  How dastardly.  What rebels we were.  How delicious to have such an innocent adventure in the dark with cabin mates.
Such “secret” times still happen in cabins in camps around the world.  Times that kids will think back on when they are retired and something triggers a memory.  In 1958 it was my time, my cabin, my All-Star game.  I loved remembering it the other night.  I watched baseball but thought about kids at camp making memories.  Our granddaughter, Zoe is a camper at this moment.  I know she’s having those secret times.  Good for her.


Monday, July 8, 2013

Tough Questions

Dear Family and Friends:

Those of us in the extended Goldman Union Camp Institute family have been following, with fear in our hearts, the events that began last week at camp.  Lightning, out of the blue, struck three campers on the Migrash Sport (athletic field).  Our camp staff acted without hesitation saving lives with CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.  Two of those campers have been released from the hospital; yet one remains in critical but stable condition.  The campers' families have established a fund at the camp in honor of those unbelievably brave staff members to ensure future staff training and equipment.  I'm sure that if you want to contribute, you can get more information from G.U.C.I.

At another Jewish camp in Northern California, a tree fell and killed one staff member.  Unbelievable.  Parents send their kids to camp to have a good time, make friends for life, and learn a little about themselves and our Jewish heritage....and tragedy happens. 

I guess one could say that this is an ultimate teachable moment.  I've had numerous conversations this week with friends who question, "How could God let something like this happen?" and, "How can one have faith in the midst of so much doubt?"  With the High Holy days approaching early this fall, I know that many of us will be wrestling with such questions.  When we read the Unetane Tokef on Yom Kippur..."Who shall live and who shall die.  Who by fire and who by water, etc?"  how will we be able to think of a God who drops a tree on an innocent camp staff member or strikes three little ultimate Frisbee players down with lightning?  I, myself won't have such a dilemma.  I'll tell you why.

In my life, I have been greatly affected by the book, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" by Rabbi Kushner.  He struggles with the above mentioned questions, and so many more, after experiencing the loss of a child.  Rabbi Kushner's ultimate answer may have been my greatest faith lesson.  Brilliant in its simplicity, Kusher teaches us that it is not God that makes disasters like these happen.  They happen, period.  God, or faith, helps us cope with life and life is full of terrible things.  In spite of it all, we can still believe in goodness, spirit, the strength we derive from our families, communities and our Peoplehood, and even some sort of grand scheme to existence.  Fiddler on the Roof's Tevye showed us that we can be angry with God, we can rail against the inequities of life, we can tear out our hair in despair; but we can also marvel at the fact that there is life, there is solace, there is beauty, and there can be faith.

Understand that anyone who has all the answers is to be greatly distrusted.  You can trust me.  I don't have many answers.  Like most of us, I've carried a full case of doubt around forever.  The longer I have lived the more I have come to realize that doubt may be a good thing.  Blind faith may be for some, but not me.  Doubt (as my football coach used to say) keeps the defense honest.  Doubt keeps me on my faith toes.  But just as I doubt (really) blind faith, I have much more faith than blind doubt.  Most of the questions in my heart I answer with simple "I don't knows."  But I can't help but look at the world around us and marvel at its sunsets, smile at babies, and see good in almost everyone I know.  Those miracles, and so many others, are part of life too. 

If these ramblings don't make any sense to you, well, that's why God created the Delete button. 

In any event, we sit in the comfort of our homes, drive in our air conditioned cars while those G.U.C.I. counselors, unit heads, camp director, camp faculty and board members did us proud by their actions and reactions.  The healing continues.  Their work is sacred, important, and they do it with love.  We owe them all a great debt of gratitude.  I'm going to add to this the letter I sent to our G.U.C.I. staff last week.

Keep the faith, if you know what I mean.  


Dear G.U.C.I. Staff and Avodah:

Words just about escape me after what you all have been through last Shabbat. I've read all of the accounts and heard first hand from Mark, Jeremy Klotz and Paul Reichenbach, and can only tell you how proud I am of you.  After all of my many years at camp I can honestly say that I have no idea what it was like to face the crisis you did last Saturday.  Nevertheless I do know what it is like to be a part of the team and part of the spirit of our camp.  You, as a staff, have shown us all your depth, your commitment, and your love. 

From a Jewish perspective, as we sing daily, you all have been given the opportunity to make our world a better place, and have done so.  I’m sure that the recovery process will continue and that you will love each other through it.  Fortunately there is healing in the work at camp, in all of the small moments with your kids and each other, in your humor and your music, and your T’fillot. 

For all of you, those with whom I've worked in the past and those newer to the camp community, I am immensely proud…even to be remotely connected to G.U.C.I.

There is a lot of summer left, a lot of kids to be touched by your magic, a lot of smiles, a lot of new Hebrew words to be learned. A lot of A minor and D minor chords to be played.  I know that you will play them well and teach them well and that you will be enriched in the process.

Thank you for being who you are…the best of us.

Ron Klotz

Friday, June 14, 2013


                                                                                                             June, 2013

Dear Family and Friends:

When I was working as Director of the Goldman Union Camp Institute I had to make many places home for short periods of time.  Of course, I mainly hung my hat at Chez Klotz in Indianapolis.  But, for twelve weeks every summer the hat rack was at camp in Zionsville.  That was home.  Then, during the winter months almost every weekend I hung my hat (and earmuffs) in every Jewish community from Cleveland, Ohio to Kansas City, Missouri.  Those were short-duration homes usually in a Courtyard Marriott.

This last winter our brother-in-law, Gilson, came to live with us for three months.  People asked us, “Wasn't that a long time to have a guest?”  The answer was always “N.O.” Gilson, who is married to my wife Juca’s sister, Helenita, is a remarkable person.  He was here from Brazil to study English at Indiana University for the semester.  He’s an old world, even European sort.  Speaks several languages.  Wears his hat at a jaunty angle.
Gilson and I have been closer than brothers-in-law for a long time.  We have traveled together in Brazil, sailed together on Lake Michigan, shared many a glass and cigar.  But living with him in our home taught me some interesting things about him.  He’s an appreciator (I may have just made up that word).  Gilson appreciates everything.  He appreciated the snows in February as well as the budding plants in May.  He appreciated going to jazz clubs and diners, as well as “good” restaurants and concert halls.  Gilson appreciated his first ride in my convertible with the top down, my hootenanny folk jams, and even the weeks when our kids and grandchildren, family from Brazil and other guests filled our house to over capacity .  Gilson is an appreciator of life.

One cold Sunday afternoon in March, I built a fire in the living room and we sat and read and listened to jazz there for several hours.  We hardly spoke.  It was golden.  As time went on I asked Gilson how he felt being here for an extended stay.  He told me that, of course he missed Helenita and his boys and family, but that (and he actually said something like this) “I've hung my hat here and its home.”
Juca and I greatly missed Gilson when he left in May.  I missed our talks.  I missed sitting out on the porch with him in our winter coats having a drink and a cigar.  I missed being with him when we didn't have much to say, and that was alright.
So, for three months my friend Gilson hung his hat in Bloomington.  He appreciated everything we did and we appreciated doing everything with him.  For three months I had the brother I never had.  

It’s very easy to appreciate something like that.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Our front porch looks out on to the west and gives us a glimpse of each evening's sunset.  Later this summer we will, once again sit on the beach on Florida's West coast and watch God's mysterious evening light show.  Sunsets.  I can never escape them.  I don't want to.


                                                                                                             February 1997

Dear GUCI Staff:

I've always had a special feeling, a fascination with sunsets.  For me, no matter what the day brings forth, a dramatic sunset is a sign of hope.  As I think about it, I realize that I've gone out of my way to watch sunsets wherever I've been.  Sunsets are glorious spectacles of elapsing time dramatically punctuated by their slowly changing color schemes.  They inspire me with their magnitude, make me feel small and part of something big, all at once.

When I was a Unit Head at Olin-Sang-Ruby up in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin I had a private Erev Shabbat ritual.  At a certain point during Shabbat dinner, I would quietly leave my unit and walk out back of the Chadar Ochel.  There I would take my seat, all alone, on a wooden storage box and watch the Western skies turn to fire as Shabbat descended. I liked to think that the colors in the sky were the train on Shabbat’s royal gown.  Later I’d think about the prayer in the evening service which credits God with causing the evening to fall and setting the stars in their heavenly courses.  It’s hard to feel Shabbat peace when you are a camp staff member with ongoing responsibilities, but those Shabbat sunsets out back of the Chadar Ochel were my fifteen minutes of Shabbat Shalom.  I was a Unit Head for six summers.  Every clear Erev Shabbat I managed to make it to my designated sunset spot.  I remember the calm and the beauty of it.

Last spring, Juca and I spent a week on the West coast of Florida.  We joined all the others in that beautiful place each evening quietly watching the sun touch down on the water.  We always thought and sometimes remarked at how quickly the sun went down.  It seemed to plunge into the Gulf and disappear.  One almost expected to hear it sizzle.  But what came next was the clincher.  After the sun was gone, a full half-hour of reds turning to purple turning to wisps of pastels.  Someone told me the colors are just the sun’s reflection off of the air pollution.  “Finally,” I thought, “something good from pollution.”  

Yesterday I spoke to my son Michael on the phone.  It was a big deal for me because he’s away, far away studying for the semester in Tel Aviv.  That was the first time we had spoken since he left.  It’s true that I hear his voice speaking the words he writes me on the e-mail, but in my heart, not my ears.  So it was great to actually hear him yesterday.  He had a lot to tell me, but one of the stories was about going to the beach to watch the sun set.  I think he told me this because he knows that I am moved by the thought of it.  And now I have these thoughts too; thoughts of my son in Israel, celebrating his independence, touching his Jewish roots, growing up, sitting on the beach taking it all in, in Technicolor.

Each evening we bless God for making the evening fall and setting the stars in their heavenly courses.  And in our hearts a special blessing for allowing us to witness this greatness; and living to hear our children tell of this majesty, from 8,000 miles away. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

That Was the Week That Was

                                                                                                            April, 2013

Dear Family and Friends:

It’s been quite a couple of weeks here at Indiana University Hillel.  The weekend before last we really rocked the house with Danny Nichols in residence.  The highlights included a Shabbat Rocks Friday Evening service, a Dan Nichols late night unplugged concert, Saturday evening musical Havdalah, and finally a great hootenanny with guitars, fiddles, drums, a banjo (of course) and a lot of great folk singing.  Along with this, it’s been wonderful having our brother-in-law Gilson here visiting from Brazil (and, I might add that the cherry on the top was that our son, Jeremy, daughter-in-law, Melissa, and grand-kids Zoe and Maya were here for the weekend as well). 

That was the beginning of a wonderful ten days.  Last week we commemorated Yom Ha Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  I was asked to lead the Mourners' Kaddish at the end of the day’s worship service.  As an introduction to the prayer, I told the IU students my story of leading Kaddish for 100 high school students at the death camp, Birkenau, in Poland last summer.  As we stood in the plaza at the center of that tragic place, having conducted a Yizkor (memorial) service of sorts, I stood in front of the students and saw two groups approaching from behind them.  One group moved over to our left and sat down a ways away from us.  They had a boom box and played Hebrew songs loud enough for us to hear.  The other was obviously a group of Israelis.  They stood to our right and each of them carried an Israeli flag.  I asked our students to notice both groups.  Then I commented that here we sat in the center of what was the greatest horror our families ever encountered.  From where we were, we could see the railroad tracks, the barracks, the gas chambers, the crematorium, and the pools of water wherein our ancestor’s ashes lie.  And yet, to our left we heard Jewish music.  And to our right we saw Israelis and Israeli flags.  How could we not think the words, “Am Yisrael Chai…The Jewish People Lives,” and be proud that our People endures and survives?  

That day I suggested that we say our Mourners' Kaddish not just as a memorial to those who died there, those who had no one to say Kaddish for them, but also as a testimony of our dedication to living on as Jews for them, and for ourselves.  And lastly, that we say Kaddish as a declaration that in the face of all the evil we have witnessed, we are still people of faith; people that believe that there is good in this world; people who know that we can make a positive difference. 

And so we rose at our service here at Hillel and prayed the Mourners' Kaddish with those thoughts in mind; as our memorial to those who lost their lives in the Holocaust, and our dedication to the Jewish future, and our declaration of faith. 

The rest of the week underlined those very thoughts.  On both Thursday and Friday I trekked up to Indianapolis to join two other rabbis in a Beit Din, a rabbinic court, as two people who had studied here at Hillel completed their conversions to Judaism.  I had the honor of teaching both of them Hebrew.  The other two rabbis lead the conversion class here in Bloomington and so had taught them the fundamentals of Judaism.  It is quite an honor to witness a person’s actual moment of becoming Jewish.  By Friday afternoon there were at least two more Jews in the world than there were on Wednesday.
Talk about trekking.  Saturday I really trekked, all the way past Dayton Ohio to officiate at the wedding for one of our former campers.  The groom’s family has been involved with our Goldman Union Camp for about thirty years.   What a great feeling to watch those parents at their son’s wedding.  When I first met the parents this, their third son, was just an infant.  Last weekend he stood under the Chupah.  Priceless.

So, sighs of the Shoah (Holocaust) one day, followed by two adults joyously becoming Jewish the next, and a wedding to top it all off.  Man, if that wasn't the week that was.  Well, the Jewish week that was.  It most certainly was. 


Monday, April 1, 2013

Strange Conversations

                                                                                                April, 2013

Dear Family and Friends:

Passover winds down here in Bloomington, and around the world.  Spring is finally springing and winter, like my hairline, is receding.  Thank goodness.  Working at a homeless shelter is a constant reminder of those Passover words, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”  As I've told you in the past, volunteering at the shelter, working in their kitchen, has opened up a whole world for me.  It’s not that I didn't know that there were homeless people.  But now there are faces, personalities, conversations, and more to make it all so very real.

Certainly several of the people I encounter every week have mental issues.  I’m no psychologist, but I do have eyes and ears.  I meet two very interesting people every Monday at the Shalom Center (not a Jewish organization at all.  It was founded by the Methodist church here in Bloomington.  They just liked the meanings of the word “Shalom,” so they used it), and I have the same weekly conversation with each of them. 

The first man meets me as I am about to enter the kitchen door at 11:55 every Monday.  He looks very serious and always asks me if he can ask me a question.  I say, “Sure.”  Then he thinks for a moment as if he is going to ask about Einstein’s theory of relativity or something, looks into my eyes and asks, “What time is it?”  I always tell him that it is just about noon and time for me to go to work.  Later, while I’m having lunch on my break in the dining room with all of the others who come to eat, he appears and looks for me.  When he spots me he approaches and always asks, “Do you own a blue Cadillac?”  Sometimes it’s a Mercedes, sometimes an Oldsmobile.  But I think it’s always blue.  I always smile and tell him “No, I walk to the shelter.”  That’s it.  I can’t see any harm in these oft repeated conversations.  I even think this fellow looks forward to them.  I asked some of the other workers about him.  No one knows him and no one else seems to have such conversations with him.  Funny, I look forward to seeing and talking to him.  

The other fellow’s name is Daniel.  He’s an intelligent person who I hear speaking several languages in the dining room.  Like Johnny Two-times in the movie "Goodfellas," who always says things twice ("I think I'll go for the papers, for the papers.")  Daniel has the unusual habit of chuckling between sentences.  He’ll say, “I went to the store today, he, he.  And bought potatoes, he, he.  I served in the military, he, he.  Did you, he, he?  He and I also have very similar conversations each week.  When he brings his plate up to the window I’ll say “Howdy, Daniel;” after which he will give me his evaluation of the day’s menu. 

It’s like:  “Hi Daniel.”

“Great mac and cheese today, Ron, he, he”   Or, “Loved the rice and beans with those little sausages, he, he.”
Now, I don’t make the food or determine the menu.  I just wash dishes.  Never mind.  Daniel reports to me, every time.  Then he will smile and be on his way. 

I know that I would be disappointed if I showed up at the Shalom Center and was not asked for the time, and if I drove a blue Caddy, or heard the daily menu report.
Ain’t life interesting.


Friday, March 29, 2013

Tribute to Debbie

  Dear Friends and Family:  

At our Seder this week we read (as always) from The Song of Songs, "Arise my love, my fair one, and come away; For lo, the winter is past.  Flowers appear on the earth."  Well that is exactly what's happening and we are delighted to see the snows melt.  

But this reading always reminds me of Debbie Freedman.  She put the words to music and her melodies are with me, always.  Here's a staff letter I wrote about her over twenty years ago.  I miss her.  We all do.  We've got her songs in our hearts.  

                                                                                                                January, 1992

Dear G.U.C.I. Staff:

Sometimes I marvel at the power of music.  In a very real sense it enhances and
helps us express our emotions.  We remember times in our lives by the songs of
the day.  Our music defines our generation.  And as we camp people all know,
music has a unique power to bring people together, to unite us, and help us
express our feelings of belonging to one community. 

Last night I took a magical mystery tour into a multi-generational musical
experience.  I joined about thirty other religious school teachers for a
rainy/snowy bus ride down to Indiana University to hear and participate in a
Debbie Freedman concert.  Multi-generational because most of the bus riders
were about my age, but waiting for us in the auditorium (unbeknownst to me)
were several camp staff members.  They greeted me warmly and I felt happy that
they had taken the trouble to come and hear someone whom I think has been so
important to our camps and our movement.

It was magical as well because Debbie Freedman, a musical pioneer in her own
right, was one of the first to write modern Jewish folk music.  She brought us
from "Hava Na Gila" to "Not By Might," from "Leaving On A Jetplane" to "Lechi
Lach."  I'd be the last to say that we shouldn't sing "The old songs."  But
Debbie Freedman writes the Jewish songs of our generation.  Her songs are sung
in every camp and Reform synagogue in North America.  What an impact she has

It was emotional for me as well.  At one point, last night, she stopped to
acknowledge my presence in the audience.  You see, in 1973 Debbie was a
counselor and song leader in my unit.  She told the audience that I had been
her boss.  I was indeed her Unit Head, but I'm not sure who was the boss. 
Debbie was just finishing the music for her first album.  She was quite a
phenomenon.  She was pioneering new areas of Jewish music, and boy was it
exciting!  She was a demanding songleader who knew exactly what she wanted.  I
remember vividly how one day she stopped a special rehearsal of the entire camp
(we were learning her songs with all the harmonies in order to perform them for
ourselves in a gala musical tochnit erev) and when it was absolutely dead quiet
said to the entire group, "Klotz is not singing."  She got my attention.

For me, it was very special that she would remember and remark about those
years we worked together in camp.  And it was heartening to realize that we
continue to work toward the same goals today as we did then; she still creates
incredibly moving and educational Jewish music, songs of faith and peace,
prayers and lessons.  And me?  Well I'm still plugging away at camp too.  The
evening was both nostalgic and inspirational.  We'll sing Debbie Freedman's
songs for many years to come.  And believe me, she'll never catch me with my
mouth shut at one of her song sessions again.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

https://sites.google.com/site/rabbironsblog/mp3    test

This is a test for putting audio files on the blog.  Check this banjo piece out (played by yours truly)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Zikron'o Livracha

Although my father, Arnold Klotz has been gone now twenty-three years, his memory is indeed a blessing for me.  Everyone knew him as Arnie.  He was a warm, loving and very funny person.  My dad and grandfather Max ran a small insurance business called, oddly enough, Klotz Insurance.  Their office was at the Insurance Exchange Building, 175 West Jackson Blvd, in Chicago, part of the Stewart, Keater,  Kessberger and Lederer agency.  They called themselves insurance brokers.  Whereas the agents in the office represented the insurance companies who wrote the policies, brokers represented the customers who bought the policies from the insurance companies.  Dad was always presenting claims to the companies and defending claims for his clients.  My dad sold his clients the insurance and then helped them collect (that's when they needed him the most).  He spent most of his days out making calls, seeing clients who had problems and helping them resolve issues regarding losses.

In those days the insurance industry had a somewhat bad reputation.  People who couldn't make it in other careers often wound up selling insurance.  Many were not exactly the most reliable.  Once when I was a little boy I visited the office.  I distinctly remember Mr. Lederer (the big boss of the agency) taking me aside and saying, "See all of the men working here (there must have been 200 at desks that filled an entire floor of the building), your father is the one everyone trusts.  He is number-one honest."  That was Arnie Klotz, avid golfer, Cubs fan, the guy who loved to sneak away with his buddy Roy Levy for an afternoon at Wrigley or at the Windy City pool hall on Cicero Avenue for a game of three cushion billiards.

Now, after almost two years of retirement in Bloomington, Indiana, Juca uncovered a small plastic bag in a box of stuff.  In the bag were five pencils.  No big deal, right?  Well, upon looking at the pencils I see the printing  Klotz Insurance, Wa 2-0173.  Wabash 2-0173, my father's business phone number; a number I had always remembered even though Klotz Insurance ceased to be, around 1975.

I remember so many things my father said to me over the years.  He loved Juca and her sister Helenita, adored Jeremy and Michael, his grandsons, but also loved the Israelis that I used to bring home from camp in Wisconsin on days off.  He loved most of the things I did in my life, my friends, my music (although he never owned a record or even a radio.  He used to say that if it didn't have four wheels, he wasn't interested...he absolutely loved automobiles).

In about 45 minutes I will officiate at two boys B'nai Mitzvah here in Greencastle, Indiana.  I serve as the rabbi at the Hillel here (DePauw University).  Just as my dad never missed one of my football games in high school (he often said to me after a game, "Man that defensive tackle gave you a hard time...but you handled him.") both my mom and dad often accompanied me to high holiday pulpits to watch me "play" on the Bima.  Dad loved to help me roll the Torah and find the holiday Torah portions.  Although his great grandfather in Poland had been The Rabbi of Tarnov, and his father, my grandfather, was one of the most learned Jews in our little Czech synagogue in Chicago, he knew absolutely no Hebrew.  I think he was impressed that I could spot the exact starting place in the Torah for that day's reading.  If he were here today, he would certainly have helped me find the boys' Torah portions and then taken his seat in the back row to watch his son go to work. 

As I was about to leave the motel room, Bible and prayer book in hand, I decided to grab a pencil in case I would need to note something down during the service.  There it was, Wa 2-0173.  Dad's always with me.  We unveil cemetery markers, tombstones,  and look at scrapbooks and snapshots to remember our parents.  Sometimes a word or a song or a restaurant they loved, or stories at the Seder bring them back to us.  All of that and more applies to my memories of my dad, Arnie Klotz.  But now, daily, I see his Klotz Insurance, Wa 2-0173 pencils on my desk, in my car, and now, in my prayerbook.  What smiles a pencil can bring on. 

Thinking of you, dad...